June 26, 2013 2:26 am

It’s about toilet paper

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toilet-paperBy Michelle Gunderson

Do you remember embarrassing moments in grade school? Feeling unsure of yourself and wanting to crawl under your desk? Imagine having to walk to the front of your classroom and ask your teacher for toilet paper.

This was my experience teaching fourth grade 20 years ago in Chicago. Not only did we have to regulate toilet paper distribution, the textbooks in my classroom were more than a decade old and none my students could read at grade level. These were the bad old days in Chicago where I had 39 students in my classroom and no place to put them. One of my students said we were “belly button to belly button” in our classroom. And it was true, there was no place to move.

Why did I tolerate such teaching conditions? Because I believed in our city’s children, and their right to an excellent public education.

Over the years conditions improved. Class sizes became reasonable at the schools where I worked and for the most part, I was able to cobble the materials together that supported student learning. Children were learning, and job conditions – while not great – were tolerable.

Now, we have come 360 in Chicago, and we are back in the bad old days.

Two weeks ago school-based budgets were released, and over the past week principals and Local School Councils rolled out their plans. The cuts are drastic. Our school had to empty out all reserves, pink slip two teachers’ aides, and eliminate a school secretary position. We are mercifully able to keep all of teaching positions this year, but with drained reserves this will not be sustainable for another cycle.

This is when we get back to the toilet paper issue.  In many schools, including mine, there are no funds left for janitorial supplies – and this includes toilet paper.

Last Tuesday, Chicago activists gathered toilet paper donations outside of an event where Barbara Byrd-Bennett, our schools chief, proclaimed the benefits of her five-year plan.  What might seem juvenile to some is in fact a perfect metaphor for the disregard of human dignity – the Chicago Public Schools care so little about children that their basic needs are being neglected.

The question is at what point is a budget beyond ridiculous?  The personnel cuts increase class sizes, textbook funds are slashed, and we have no money left for the basic health needs of children.  In the end, the drastic school-based budgeting is creating systemic failure.